Should Toon fans have Sympathy for the Devil?

Posted: April 25, 2011 in Blogs
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“Please allow me to introduce myself,
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a mans soul and faith.”

Many a Newcastle United fan would surely empathise with the opening lines of the Rolling Stones’ classic hit ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. In sporting terms, Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley could definitely be described as being Satan-like in a city where football is regarded by many as a religion – but whilst he is certainly wealthy, the jury is still out as to whether he is a man of taste! Since buying Newcastle United “a long, long year” ago – four to be precise – Michael James Wallace Ashley, otherwise known as the Fat Cockney Bastard or simply as ‘Mike’ has indeed stolen many a man’s soul and faith.

Should Toon fans sympathise with Mike Ashley?

Ashley seemingly came to the club’s rescue in the summer of 2007 when he quickly and unexpectedly forced through the purchase of the club for a total fee in the region of £134m, excluding existing debts. The Newcastle fans had exactly what they had been craving for for nigh on a decade – the replacement of the much-maligned Freddy Shepherd as the club’s chairman. Ashley bought the club with promises of debt removal, squad investment and talk of 5-year plans that would see Newcastle turn into the ‘Arsenal of the North-East’. The clubs new Billionaire owner was seen by many to have bought the club as a toy and in a rare interview with the News of the World, he openly admitted as much following the sacking of Sam Allardyce in early 2008:

“I bought this club to make it a success and the harsh truth is there wasn’t much prospect of that. I bought this club to have some fun and I wasn’t having much fun at all.”

Initially, the fans rejoiced at the positivity of the club’s new owner and his sidekick chairman Chris Mort. Ashley was regularly seen amongst the Toon Army at away fixtures, complete with replica shirt sporting the name of one of his first purchases as owner of the club in the form of striker cum defensive midfielder Alan Smith, signed from Manchester United for a fee in the region of £6m. Ashley’s choice of having ‘SMITH’ emblazoned on the back of his shirt probably had more to do with the former Leeds United player’s newly inherited squad number (17) though than it did the abilities of the former England international. Ashley is a known gambler and roulette enthusiast, with 17 being his number of choice on the green-felted table… apparently. Ashley’s penchant for risk-taking extends far further than the casino’s of Mayfair however and is no doubt one of the major reasons behind his incredible success with his Sports Direct business.

Ashley's fondness for risk-taking has been evident throughout his NUFC tenure

‘But what’s confusing you, is just the nature of my game’

Throughout the last four years of Ashley’s NUFC tenure, his appreciation for gambling has become increasingly apparent to th0se who turn up to watch his assets play each week – yet perhaps the biggest gamble of all was Ashley’s initial decision to buy the club – rather than the many gambles he has taken since (with varying degrees of success). The sportswear giant demonstrated his addiction to gambling, combined with an alarmingly distinct lack of business acumen when he chose to purchase the club despite not having undertaken due-dilligence – a common practice in such large-scale business transactions where the painstaking process of carefully analysing a company’s books is done in order to give the buyer a full-picture of what exactly they are buying.

Some may argue that Ashley’s reluctance to undertake due-dilligence was actually a blessing in disguise, fearing that had he taken a proper look at the club’s accounts, he would have seen the awful financial position that the club was in and wouldn’t have touched the club with the proverbial bargepole. Such a situation would have left the previous devil-incarnate Freddy Shepherd in charge of the club – an option which seems to be increasingly favourable with the benefit of hindsight. Only Ashley, Shepherd and their associates know the true situation that the club was in when the former purchased it in May 2007 but Ashley’s aides – most notably Derek Llambias – have always been quick to portray the Sportswear and waistline giant as the saviour of Newcastle United:

“If it wasn’t for Mike’s continued input… we would be in a similar position to Portsmouth (In administration)…”

Derek Llambias

So should we have Sympathy for the Devil?

The number of mistakes and major gaffes Mike Ashley has made in his relatively short time at the helm of NUFC are far too large in number to comprehensively list, yet despite his obvious and numerous flaws there are also a number of areas where Ashley could perhaps be forgiven or indeed sympathised with. In particular, right from the start, he inherited a club that was inherently poorly run both on and off the pitch. Sorting out the mess that Freddy Shepherd left behind would have taken the world’s best football and business brains combined years to achieve, let alone a cockney knock-off merchant and his casino cronies. He not only inherited a club that was being run into the ground financially from within the boardroom, but also an underachieving team on the pitch, with an aging squad full of overpaid, under-committed ‘stars’. He was also in the unfortunate position that just weeks prior to his purchase of the club, his predecessor had installed former Bolton manager Sam Allardyce and his army of backroom staff on long, lucrative contracts. Faced with the awkward position of either instantly and expensively replacing Allardyce upon his arrival or backing him in the transfer market, he chose the latter option, endearing himself to the Geordie public in the process. If he had chosen to dispense of Allardyce’s services before the Yorkshireman had even taken a training session at the club would have seen a national backlash against Ashley for not giving Big Sam a chance. As a result, Ashley was forced into signing cheques for his new manager – a process which saw the following arrive at St James’ Park for a total of more than £20m with all on lucrative contracts: Joey Barton, David Rozehnal, Geremi, Claudio Cacapa, Abdoulaye Faye, Habib Beye, Mark Viduka, Jose Enrique and Alan Smith. Of those 9 players, only Habib Beye hit the ground running and whilst Barton and Enrique are now justifying their price tags, they did anything but in their first 2 seasons at the club. Others, like Geremi and Viduka took the club for all it was worth in their (fortunately) relatively short stays on Tyneside. After 6 months, with the team playing awful football with some awful results to boot, Ashley sacked Allardyce and although many neutrals will tell you this decision prompted the club’s relegation in 2009, this is a theory most fans on Tyneside dispel as a myth.

‘Made damn sure that Pilate, washed his hands and sealed his fate.’

Ashley replaced Allardyce with fans favourite Kevin Keegan and wanting to make sure that there would be no repeat of the aging, expensive players brought in by Big Sam, Ashley introduced a policy of signing younger players with resale value, should the club wish to sell them in the future. In order to oversee this new policy, Ashley installed Dennis Wise, one of the most hated men in football, above Kevin Keegan, as the head of youth development and scouting. The Keegan/Wise partnership was a marriage made in hell as Keegan found out to his cost some 7 months later, resigning after having players he had not wanted (Nacho Gonzalez and Xisco) forced upon him by Wise – playing the role of Pontius Pilate – on transfer deadline day 2008.

Dennis Wise's actions led to Kevin Keegan's resignation from the club in 2008.

Whilst Ashley’s new policy of signing younger players and looking to improve the club’s academy was an admirable strategy for the club to impose, the personnel chosen to run it were entirely non-compatible. It seemed that Ashley’s problem was not so much his ideas, but instead the people he entrusted to carry them out. This certainly applied to the decision he took next: appointing the former boss of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, Joe Kinnear as the club’s caretaker manager. Ashley wanted an experienced head to guide the club while he looked to sell up after the Keegan fiasco turned the Toon Army against him. No serious bidders were forthcoming however, and Ashley took the club off the market in December of 2008 although further criticism was to come.

Following the departure of the talented French sulk Charles N’Zogbia and club legend Shay Given in January of 2009, the club required a further caretaker manager in February when Joe Kinnear was taken to hospital on the eve of the team’s game against West Brom. Chris Hughton originally took charge of first team affairs however with the team struggling and 8 games remaining in the season, Ashley and his new chairman Derek (Silence of the) Llambias managed to persuade club legend and record-goalscorer Alan Shearer to leave the comfort of the Match of the Day studio and return to Newcastle to lead the team until the end of the season.

‘And I was round when Jesus Christ, had his moment of doubt and pain.’

The decision to employ Shearer seemed the correct one, allowing him to galvanise the fans and team alike on the run-in to the end of the season, in the hopes of avoiding relegation to the Championship. However, the club, with its squad desperately lacking in either desire or confidence was virtually already down. Shearer and the fans could only watch in horror as the club slid into English football’s second tier at Villa Park in May. Although it was hardly Shearer’s fault, it was to be the worst moment of his playing and (short) managerial career.

Ashley oversaw Alan Shearer lead the team as they were relegated in 2009.

In the immediate aftermath of the team’s relegation, Shearer claimed the club was in need of a massive overhaul from top-to-bottom. He later declared that he wanted the job full-time and when Ashley and Llambias said he was the man to take the club forward, it seemed only a matter of time until the sheet-metal worker’s son from Gosforth took up the task of guiding his hometown club back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. However, Shearer claimed he was never even offered a contract. It seemed apparent that it was a publicity stunt by the NUFC board, aimed at quelling demand for Shearer to be given the job even though he was never in the running. One of the reasons may have been his wage-demands although it’s more likely the requested control over team affairs and transfer budget that put Ashley off appointing Shearer. Instead, he appointed the low-budget option of Chris Hughton – the quiet ex-Spurs man who had failed to inspire when in temporary charge the previous season. The club was again put on the market and again there were no takers. Ashley took the club off the market for a second time and turned Hughton’s temporary appointment into a permanent one after a promising start to the season.

Hughton – on a reported annual salary of just £250k – received no money for transfers despite seeing the likes of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Habib Beye and Sebastien Bassong all leave the club in the wake of its relegation. Hughton slowly conquered the hearts of the Toon Army as he manfully guided the team to automatic promotion with alarming ease. Only the achievement was anything but easy. The club’s humiliated players, tarnished by relegation, bonded and formed a new-found team spirit, battling their way to 102 points and the Championship trophy.

Chris Hughton delivered promotion and silverware at the first time of asking

Paying PL wages in the Football League: Ashley’s successful gamble

Although many star names left, several remained at the club and due to Ashley’s failure to include relegation induced wage reductions in players contracts, the entire playing staff continued to pick up Premier League wages. The massive reduction in revenue caused by relegation meant that Ashley was left to pay the bills, forking money out of his own pocket to keep the club running and the players paid. It was another Ashley gamble  – The club’s wage bill dwarfed those of other clubs in the Championship – except this time it paid off. By retaining the core group of the playing squad, Newcastle’s quality shone through and promotion was secured. Ashley’s faith in both Hughton and the playing squad must be commended, even if many will see alterior motives behind his decision to back both.

Return to the Premier League (and old ways)

Once back in the Premier League, Hughton received limited funds to strengthen the squad, bringing in Cheik Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa (initially on loan), but the outlay of £3.5m in summer transfer fees was one of the lowest in the Premier League. Ashley was gambling again – this time that the squad was good enough to survive the 2010/11 season. By the start of November his gamble seemed to be paying off, with the club sitting safely in the top half of the table and great results against Aston Villa, Sunderland and Arsenal showing that Newcastle were able to compete in the top-flight. However, when Hughton’s assistant Colin Calderwood left to take over at Hibs North of the border, doubts about Hughton’s future began to surface as he was unable to choose his replacement. In true Mike Ashley fashion, the owner bit the hand that fed him and dispensed of Hughton in December, replacing him with Alan Pardew, rumoured to be a London gambling buddy, known through former casino manager Del boy Llambias. The move further angered the Toon Army as Hughton had worked minor miracles in the face of adversity yet this time it also served to anger the footballing community as a whole, with Hughton one its most-liked members. His replacement with a man whose track record included relegating Charlton Athletic and, most recently being sacked as manager of League 1 outfit Southampton failed to inspire Newcastle’s fans although with safety virtually assured and £35m from the sale of Andy Carroll to spend, it remains to be seen if the appointment of Pardew will be a successful gamble or the latest in a long line of major Ashley gaffes.

The jury is still out on Ashley's decision to appoint Alan Pardew as Hughton's successor

Whilst Ashley is undoubtedly guilty of committing several high profile mistakes and PR errors, he has also made some good decisions in the running of the club. Ashley finally has the club running like a business and as much as some people may hate it, in the harsh current economic climate, that is how football clubs will have to be run as fans of Leeds, Portsmouth and Plymouth will doubtless agree. If the man portrayed as the Devil by most on Tyneside has good intentions for the club’s future then he simply MUST show them this summer with the substantial amount of cash he pocketed from the sale of Andy Carroll in January. For many, Ashley had his last chance too long ago but some are willing to have Sympathy for the Devil and see what he does in the summer before making their final judgement.

Some of Ashley’s biggest NUFC PR gaffes:

  • Appointing Dennis Wise above KK
  • Appointing Joe Kinnear
  • Poor treatment of club legends Keegan and Shearer
  • The stadium naming rights fiasco (SportsDirect.com@StJamesPark)
  • Sacking Chris Hughton
  • The sale of Andy Carroll
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